More on Playing God: Power, Force and Violence

I've continued to think some more about power, specifically about how to approach the question Jeff raised in the comments to my recent post regarding Andy Crouch's book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power

You'll recall that in that post I suggested that Andy's book would have been improved if it had included a clearer analysis of power. That definitional ambiguity in the book makes it difficult to answer Jeff's question: Is power redeemable?

As I mentioned to Jeff, it all depends what you mean by power.

So thinking some more about this, let me try to analyze some terminology, in a tentative and provisional way. I'm sure there are theologians who have done a lot of work in this area, so apologies if there is a book out there that I need to read. What follows are just some thoughts off the top of my head.

As I noted in my previous post, the working definition of power in Playing God seems to be causality, the potential (created by, as I argued it, ability and opportunity) to produce effects upon the world.

Power in Playing God is often just synonymous with causality. And if that's the definition of power--the potential to produce effects upon the world--then the answer to the question "Is power redeemable?" seems clear: Yes, power is redeemable. If the effects we produce enhance human flourishing or, to use a biblical term, the Kingdom of God, then power seems redeemable.

Causality can be directed toward good and holy outcomes. That is one of the main points made in Playing God: Causality directed toward human flourishing is a good thing.

But if causality is all we mean by "power" then a lot of the drama is sucked out of the conversation. 

So let me try to flesh out some terms to see how the conversation about power might be affected.

Again, by power we mean causality, the potential to produce effects upon the world.

Is causality redeemable?

Yes, it appears so. See Playing God. If directed toward human flourishing causality is redeemable. Causality can be holy.

Next term: force.

By force we mean the application of power in overcoming some resistance.

This is still pretty vague but it gets closer to the more interesting questions. The key issue in force, I'm suggesting, is the presence and overcoming of resistance.

For example, if you "force a door open" you have to apply power to overcome some resistance to the door not opening, perhaps because the door is locked. If we "force a square peg into a round hole" we are applying power to overcome the physical resistance of the peg not conforming to the shape of the hole. Finally, when we "force a person to do something" we apply power (or the threat of power) to overcome a person's physical or mental resistance.

Okay, now we reach an interesting question: Is force redeemable?

The situation is more difficult here. The presence of resistance brings in some ethical questions. I think most of the examples of force in our world would suggest that force isn't redeemable. Force in these cases are instances of coercion, using power to make people do things they don't want to do.

But are there any instances where force is redeemable?

I think so. A few examples.

Is persuasion a form of force? We speak of the "force of an argument" or a "forceful plea." In these cases resistance is being overcome--prior dissent or disagreement--and the persuasive rhetoric overcomes this resistance.

Consider also how I might restrain a person from attacking another person. I might hold the attacker in a bear hug. I'm using force--I'm overcoming the attacker's resistance--to protect everyone involved from harm.

There are also instances where parents might use forms of force to get children to behave, acquire good habits or act responsibility.

Finally, what about Gandhi's satyagraha, sometimes translated as "soul force" or "truth force"? What about the force of love in Martin Luther King Jr.'s philosophy of nonviolence? In these instances the oppressed person is trying to overcome the resistance of the oppressor. Thus the use of force. But the location of both the resistance and application force is spiritual rather than physical. Force is being applied to hearts and minds in the effort to convert the oppressor.  

In short, the most interesting questions regarding power are less about causality than about the application of force. What is force? Is it ever appropriate to use force? If so, when and how?

And beyond these ethical issues related to force, an analysis of force bears upon soteriological and eschatological questions. Specifically, in the face of human resistance (sin, evil) will God use force to set the world to rights? And if so, what sort of force?

Force is also in play in questions of theodicy. Specifically, should a loving and all-powerful God use force to protect us from harm in this world? Or should God allow causality to run its course?

All in all, it seems like a deep theological account of force is worth pursuing.

Which brings us to a third term, violence.

By violence we mean force that causes harm or damage.

Violence is generally associated with force, forcibly causing harm. But harm isn't always caused by force. Harm can be done through inaction, acts of omission rather than commission. Violence due to neglect or abandonment would be examples

Is violence redeemable? Or, phrased in the language of Playing God, can violence be used to protect or create human flourishing?

Again, there are a host of ethical issues in play here. The just war and pacifism debate is one example. And there are also the theological questions about if God resorts to or will resort to violence to set the world to rights. We see this issue--the relationship to God and violence--emerge in debates about the Old Testament, atonement and final judgment.

In conclusion, I think the question "Is power redeemable?" is too vague to answer. Or too banal. If by power we mean causality the question isn't all that interesting.

But questions about force and violence get us closer to our ethical and theological concerns about power.   

We all exert power in the world, generically speaking. We produce effects upon the world. And we should attend to those affects. All things being equal, we should use what power and influence we have to "play God" in promoting human flourishing.

But should we "play God" in using force? Should we "play God" in using violence?

Because before we can "play God" we need to have a vision of God, a model of the One we are to emulate. Thus, how our "powerful" God relates to force and violence becomes a critical ethical and theological issue.

Before anyone starts "playing God" these questions need to get answered.

Because when force and violence enter the picture play time is over.

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6 thoughts on “More on Playing God: Power, Force and Violence”

  1. Martian Luther King Jr.'s force of love was truly out of this world! (Forgive me for the bad joke - I saw the typo and couldn't help myself :))

    Are you going to continue pursuing this question? I, for one, would like to read more.

  2. Hi Richard, I don't know if it has come up already in previous posts, but Michel Foucault has done incredible work around the difference between power as agency versus power as domination. Have you looked at his work much?

  3. "Control" is another concept for the mix - and a particularly important one, as I'd suggest that the desire for control is actually the engine room of coercion/force in all its forms, from the individual to the systemic, including, e.g., emotional manipulation, personal threats, news management, political propaganda, torture (mental and physical), the stockpiling and deployment of arms, ...

  4. The ‘Power or prayer?’ I found both of your posts and schema of power very helpful, thanks. Perhaps you have addressed this already, but maybe you could engage with some of Caputo’s thinking on power/powerlessness in “The Weakness of God.” Particularly as one might speak of ‘the power of the cross, of blood, of love, that is the ‘power of powerlessness (ultimate expression of non-binary capacity/opportunity?). Much obliged.

    “The kingdom of God is the rule of weak forces like patience and forgiveness, which, instead of forcibly exacting payment for offense, release and let go. The kingdom is found whenever war and aggression are met with an offer of peace. The kingdom is a way of living, not in eternity, but in time, a way of living with out why, living for the day, like the lilies the field–figures of weak forces–as opposed to mastering and programming time, calculating the future, containing and managing risk. The kingdom reigns whenever the least and most undesirable are favored while the best and most powerful or put on the defensive. The powerless power of the kingdom prevails whenever the one is preferred to the ninety-nine, whenever one loves one’s enemies and hates one’s father and mother while the world, which believes in power, counsels us to fend off our enemies and keep the circle of kin and kind, of family and friends, fortified and tightly drawn.” Caputo, The Weakness of God. p. 15

  5. What accounts for the urge, then, even among Christians of ("otherwise?") good character and submission to Jesus, to protect their loved ones from imminent threats with, for example, the implicit counter-threat of concealed weapons? Do you, for example, recognize any Christlike impulses in the security arrangements being increasingly adopted by congregations and their CEOs?

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